A few days ago I posted a short story titled ‘The Baron’s daughter’ that I had written for a short story competition. Now, I’d like to look at the story in a little more depth. If you haven’t read it and would like to, it can be found here.
The short story opens with Aralia facing her father, the baron, after refusing to attend an arranged marriage with a prince. Here, I dive right into the first redemption arc. Furious with his daughter’s disobeyal, the baron vents his anger and sends her to the mines to redeem herself for disobeying him. This starts the first of two redemption arcs, but it should be carefully noted this one is a subversion of the theme. Aralia does not particularly care about redemption, and just wants to escape the prison-mine.
The next scene shows Aralia arriving at the prison-mine, where she has a discussion with the prison warden, a man named Panax. This is the major characterizing paragraph for Aralia, and is supposed to paint her as a somewhat witty/snarky character, perhaps a little too self-assured and self superior. Originally, I had a scene directly following this where Aralia immediately starts a fight because she is not shown proper respect as the daughter of the duke, but the scene had to be cut for word restraints. Essentially, Aralia is not meant to be a very likeable character at this point. She is selfish and considers everyone else below her.
The next scene serves to detail the conditions of the prison-mine. It is short and passive not because of word count restraints, but because it would slow the plot down if it dragged on for too long. In all honesty, I’m not too happy with the way this part turned out. It seems forced and on the tell scale of the ‘show, don’t tell’ rule. Ideally, I would have woven the information into the scenes around it, but I certainly didn’t have the word count to do that effectively.
Warden Panax then takes Aralia to his office, a little foreshadowing for the ending, and offers Aralia ‘redemption.’ Panax tells Aralia she will be able to leave the prison if she sets a trap for the other prisoners, explaining the mine is no longer turning a profit and the continued existence of the prisoners it too costly. Aralia, thinking only of herself and escape, accepts. Here the real subversive nature of the redemption arc comes into full view. Redemption is, traditionally, about a character seeking to undo or atone for some horrible past action, not actively cause death to save their own skin.
Aralia continues to set up the device; however she is trapped in with the fallout through a beautiful turn of Karma. This signals the beginning of the second redemption arc, the one that is played straight. Aralia is saved by a prisoner named Rauk, and this was meant to be a character-flipping moment. Aralia realizes the full magnitude of what she has done, and realizes the true redemption she needs to seek is for this.
After realizing exactly what had happened, the Prisoners decide their only option is to escape. Seeking Redemption, Aralia offers to go through with a plan that will allow the prisoners to escape. She doesn’t want to put anyone else in danger by letting them do it, and goes ahead with it despite her broken arm.
Redemption was the prompt of the contest and the central theme of the story. My single largest goal was to make the redemption theme as clear and exciting as possible, without slipping into cliché. I think having the nature and meaning of redemption to the character change as the story progress was a really cool idea, especially having one cause the need for another. I think, in this respect, I was successful.
That said, the rest of it was pulled off pretty poorly. Character and general writing quality would be my biggest concerns if I ever write a re-worked version. Some work though the middle on developing Aralia and introducing the prisoners that show up later would not go astray. Another big part would be at the ‘turn of redemption’ where Aralia has her epiphany – That part is quite poor, and I think would be the first section I revise.
So what have I learned though this experience? First of all, that I can’t write short stories. I think, if I had left it, this would have turned out between 6000 and 8000 words, all together. However, that’s a bit negative so let’s see what else it taught me.
I think working under such a strict word count with such a ‘big’ idea really forced me to change my style and make everything much more concise. Especially near the end. For the most part, I don’t really like the style, however I have noticed some things work well here that have always felt a little odd under my normal style. I’ll give an example of something I sometimes do that has always annoyed me; let’s say a character was sitting down at a desk reading a book when he hears a knock on the door.
Bob placed his bookmark within the paperback’s pages and snapped it shut, letting it rest on the desk in front of him.
‘Just a minute!’ He called as he pushed his chair back and stood. Bob walked to the door and turned the handle, pulling it open.
Now, that is just not very good. Ignoring the fact it’s a rather mundane example, it’s far too long for what little it says and really just holds everything up. Perhaps something similar could be selectively used to create tension in the reader, but it certainly doesn’t work in general use. Whenever I catch something like this in my writing, it always annoys me a little. Working on a word count, however, forced me to shorten things.
Bob snapped his book shut with a bookmark and opened the door.
That is thirty-five less words. Already, I can’t believe I was working like the first example. That’s the biggest lesson i learnt– Just do it. Just have characters do what they need to and move on, not every little detail needs to be explained.
So what do you think? Is the story worth a major touch up, or should I let it go and focus on larger fish?